Freedom House is the only organization in the United States that provides shelter, legal aid and other comprehensive services free of charge to asylum-seekers and victims of human trafficking, according to TJ Rogers, the Detroit branch’s program manager. The Detroit branch of the organization was founded in 1983 with the growing community of Salvadoran asylum-seekers escaping persecution during the country’s war.
Asylum-seekers are individuals who are awaiting decisions on international protections from a foreign country, while potentially recovering from fear of persecution based on discrimination such as political thought, religion, race or sexual orientation. Refugees — Rogers calls the label essentially an umbrella term — are people who fled a country due to persecution. Upon entering the country, their applications are considered to be successful, while asylum-seekers are still waiting on a response and working with organizations such as Freedom House in order to have shelter in the meantime.
According to first-year Medical student Jack Buchanan, the Freedom House liaison for the University of Michigan’s Asylum Collaborative, many of the asylum-seekers aided in Detroit are from the West African region, with an estimate of 90 percent coming from African countries. He explained that, unlike refugees, asylum-seekers are fleeing more isolated violence than active conflict.
Because of the lack of recognition by the United States during this process, asylum-seekers cannot receive any funding from the government.
“Without Freedom House, individuals would be in emergency shelters,” Rogers said; he explainined that getting government funding housing assistance after a stay at a shelter would be impossible without being granted asylum by the government. “And emergency shelters typically have 90-day maximum length of stay.”
From the linens on the mattress to daily transportation to legal aid, Freedom House provides essentials and support for more than 45 people every day of the year, through cultural and linguistic barriers. According to the Freedom House website, in 2015, the organization helped 144 people, with 110 singles and 10 families.
“The ultimate goal of the program is to help our residents secure legal status and to have the necessary skills, tips and tools to be independent and stable and self-sufficient when they exit our program and enter permanent housing,” Rogers said, adding the average length of stay is a year to a year and a half. The maximum length of stay is, however, two years.
The organization also has an attorney on site, but also has a partnership with the University and its immigration law clinic. Upon admission to the United States, individuals have a year to submit their applications for asylum. Working with the legal team, the seekers usually take six months to pull together an application of medical records, evidence of injuries and translation of documents.
Upon submitting the application, seekers then receive a receipt with an alien number. Despite having a year to complete this step, the end of an invidual's visa can leave individuals as undocumented and at risk of being detained by immigration. Rogers said the receipt serves as proof of an individual seeking safety within the States. In six months from receipt date, one can apply for work authorization, leading to greater chances of financial independence.
“Without Freedom House, they would be bouncing around from emergency shelter to emergency shelter,” Rogers said. “Which increases their vulnerability, especially with this political climate and these executive orders. The vulnerability has the potential to interact and come across immigration officials and that would certainly result in detention and being deporting. And most likely, if you are deported, there is the case once you land back home, you are going to be killed.”
In fact, in all facets of Freedom House’s work, the organization has strong partnerships with other organizations throughout the state. From Gleaner's Community Food Bank which provides meals and nutrition lessons to ProsperUS Detroit for entrepreneurship courses, Freedom House has a personalized schedule of workshops and classes to provide relief to its occupants.
Advanced French students at the University can volunteer at Freedom House with either as a tutoring resident or by translating documents for legal aid.
Education training is centered on teaching asylum-seekers English in order to secure jobs, said Rogers. Despite many having a master’s or a Ph.D. in their home country, many of their degrees do not match the criteria in the United States. Individuals, with aid, have to build their resumes and profiles in order to translate their experiences in a new country.
“Because most of them are professionals, because they already have the tools and the skills, they want to move out,” Rogers said. “They want to be independent and be on their own.”
Of Freedom House residents, 95 percent are survivors of torture — thus, aid involves both physical and mental remedies in order to confront survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. Most residents are individuals separated from families. Rogers explains how many are fleeing from their lives and obtaining visas, in addition to the financial cost, another great stressor.
University of Michigan Asylum Collaborative aids primarily in the application process for asylum-seekers.
One such service would be providing medical affidavits. A section of the asylum application process attempts to discover if an asylum-seeker’s medical record lines up with the torture they have endured. According to second-year Medical student Jenn Angell, a former liaison for UMAC, the physician and the accompanying medical student would do an inspection to see if the injuries on one’s body matched their story and description.
“If a woman said she had hot wax dripped on her body, then we can evaluate the body and see if that corroborates with her story,” she said.
This information is then recorded and sent to Freedom House’s lawyers. The procedures tend to greatly increase one’s chance of gaining asylum. Buchanan said seekers often have to make a case for their situation.
“It is especially difficult, because the burden of proof is on the individual,” he said. “And it requires a good amount of proof, a large hurdle to overcome. Not to mention all of the psychological hurdles. This is just adding to the uncertainty and difficulty of that process.”
Mental health services are also among those provided. Before becoming a liaison, Buchanan provided French translation during therapy sessions for survivors, who are often diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“So I have gotten to see a lot of personal stories and the traumas these kinds of people have endured,” he said.
With 20 or 25 medical students willing to volunteer, Buchanan said there was a lot of interest in the Medical School in aiding in immigration matters, especially with the ongoing concerns surrounding the immigration ban.
“There’s definitely a lot of support, like in sponsor talks about immigration or people from other organizations that work with asylum-seekers and refugees,” he said. “Those were highly attended. There is a lot of interest in the Medical School on issues like these, especially now.”
Along with medical aid, Rogers explained how partnerships with the local YMCA allowed daily exercise routines that can lead to a less stressful condition.
“Going to practice yoga, to do the physical stretches and poses and using techniques … as well as breathing techniques and such,” he said. “For example, if you wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare you had, a flashback. What are some visualization and breathing techniques can you do to calm your mind, still your mind down and you know, to come back to the present moment and go back to sleep.”
Despite the troubles, 86 percent of Freedom House residents are granted asylum, with 93 percent of residents exiting the program into stable housing with subsidies.
“With our partners, and volunteers and supporters, we have this remarkable program that really puts people in a good position to be successful when they exit our program into the community,” Rogers said.
A severe loss of funding
For the last 20 years, Freedom House received funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a transitional housing program. This serves as a little over 60 percent of the organization’s budget.
In late December, Rogers and his office received word their contract would not be renewed. Their current contract expires on March 31, giving the shelter only three months notice.
“Having only three months to fill a 60 percent budget was quite a challenge,” he said. “We are working tirelessly and fervently to identify the emergency gap funding to get us through this period. But at the same time, we are currently working with our supporters and the community to reach out to foundations and corporations and businesses for longer, sustained funding.”
One program that was lost this year as a result of funding losses was the UMAC electronic medical records project, which Angell helped with. Angell worked on the project which recorded asylum-seekers patient history so that they would have a smoother process at the various hospitals and clinics they may attend over the months. This involved translating documents as well.
This is especially important, Buchanan pointed out, since receiving old records from their home countries would be difficult due to the hostile climates. The records also allowed a consistency in the care they received, as well as the overcoming of a language barrier.
The program had completed around 30 medical records during Angell’s term as liaison. Despite this, she understood why the program was set aside for now. With the end of the patient history project, Buchanan’s own role has been limited to spreading the word of Freedom House’s work.
“The patient history project being put on hold, I completely understand,” Buchanan said. “They have so many other high priorities and things right now. I completely understand that they don’t have the manpower to sustain that program at the moment. I just hope they will able to keep their doors open.”
Much of the motivation behind the loss of funding was HUD's aim to support programs that helped move people out of traditional housing programs like shelters and into their own permanent places, Rogers explained. However, since asylum-seekers do not qualify for federal funding, they cannot benefit from these housing models.
“Without Freedom House, we are really creating a homeless population as opposed to ending it,” he said.
With local communities making the decision about what portions of the homeless population to focus on, Rogers said asylum-seekers were left out of the consideration.
“Our local continuum of care did not see refugees or asylum-seekers as a priority population, because we are the only ones who do it,” he said. “It is not a huge population. When you are looking at homeless at a whole, we are a small, unique group. But again, if you are looking to end homelessness, what are you going to do with 136 people who comes through our program every year? Other service providers, as of right now, aren’t equipped to absorb our population.”
Angell was similarly dismayed at Freedom House’s cut, seeing it as a true home for those who needed it.
“Hearing about the 60 percent cut was devastating, because Freedom House is such an incredible program and organization and an incredible group of people,” Angell said. “I think Freedom House not being able to continue because of the budget cuts — that would be such a huge loss for the Detroit community, for being to help all of these survivors who already have been through so much.”
Correction: Timeline on applying for aslyum status was fixed. Previous version indicated a three-month waiting period that is not part of the process.